Sep 17, 2013
Fall frenzy: Time to Unzip the No-Lips
By Mike Pehanich
Fish get crazy in early autumn, feeding aggressively in areas where anglers can reach them. It’s time to pull out the lipless crankbaits and get in on the craze!
Several decades ago, Lake Shelbyville guide Walt Watts turned me on to one of the great fall patterns for white bass.
“Fishing windblown flats on the main lake is my best fall pattern,” said Watts. “The wind concentrates the shad, and the white bass follow them in. So do the bass and even some walleye!”
Indeed they did! After that first experience with Watts, I prayed for autumn winds prior to every trip to the 11,000-acre reservoir in central Illinois. When Mother Nature obliged, we invariably cashed in on her white bass bounty, catching many largemouth bass situated on stumps, points, and edges of the flats, too. More significantly, I’ve seen the same or similar patterns work on reservoirs, large and small, across the country.
But just as important as the pattern Watts disclosed was the lure arsenal he unveiled. Most memorable was a lure called the “Spot” from Cotton Cordell!
I fell in love with it! That season, the Spot proved to be the hottest hardbait I had ever put my hands on. On the relatively shallow flats, we often had to crank it fast. And the white bass, largemouth and even the occasional walleye absolutely pounded it.
The Spot was the pioneer of the lipless crankbait category. Not long later came the Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap, which also claimed the category’s enduring nickname — “Trap.”
I stayed loyal to the “Spot” and “Hot Spot” for many years. In recent seasons, however, countless U.S. and Japanese manufacturers have put their creative minds to the lipless crankbait concept. They have produced some of the most productive baits on the planet. Now I try them all and carry many with me whenever I anticipate a shot at a hot bite.
No-lips catch fish all through the open water season and even through the ice. But there’s no denying their magic in spring and fall when bass – smallmouth as well as largemouth – are actively prowling the flats for food!
One advantage of lipless crankbaits is that you can cover lots of water with them. Anglers who learn to change up their “lipless” presentations with lift-and-drop, stop-and-go, ripping over the tops of vegetation and other variations on the standard “cast and crank” approach catch many more fish throughout the season. But in spring and fall when you are looking for active fish on a shallow to mid-depth flats, quick cranking with no-lips often finds them fast and keeps them coming for long stretches of the day.
Lakes with a big shad population are most renowned for their lipless crankbait bite in fall. These prolific baitfish – threadfin and gizzard shad alike – are plankton eaters. Wind piles up plankton on the windblown flats, and the plankton draw in the shad. At times, you will find both shad and predators within a few feet of shore.
If the lake has threadfin shad, cold autumn nights and days will slow them down considerably, and, if it’s cold enough, even send some into thermal shock or even death throes. That means easy pickings for bass, walleye, white bass, hybrids and even musky on some waters.
The everywhere bait!
One of the biggest mistakes anglers make with lipless crankbaits is pigeon-holing them into narrow applications. Some fish them only in spring or fall. Others only fish them on lakes with shad. Many relegate these baits to the mindless realm of one-speed-only cranking!
Big mistakes on every front!
But let’s bust the reservoir/shad myths first. Lipless crankbaits are dynamite on natural lakes, ponds, big reservoirs, little reservoirs, quarries, mining pits and more regardless of whether the waters have shad populations or not.
You can crank up bass on natural lakes across the North Country from Minnesota to Lake St. Clair to New York on lipless crankbaits throughout the fall season.
On the water
Last weekend, we located bass – including some monsters –on a private north central Illinois reservoir.
We had experienced the coolest night of the season the night before, and the bluebird skies of early morning had us thinking we would have to work harder than usual for our fish. Fortunately we found them – with lipless crankbaits!
Though we were not entirely surprised by where or how we found them, we did have a little luck on our side.
I had suggested that we troll our baits on our way across the lake. My buddy agreed. He promptly tossed a silvery Rat-L-Trap behind the boat and turned the electric motor on high. He stopped the boat suddenly not 20 feet later as his rod buckled under the weight of a four-pound bass. Me? I was still unhooking my lure from the bait-holder guide!
He released the fish, cast again and started up the motor. I got a cast off this time. But my bait had barely hit the water before he had hooked up on a second fish.
All tolled, my lure probably spent less than 30 seconds total in the water in the time it took him to catch our first four fish. His tally included two four-pounders!
But that was just the beginning.
We did little trolling the rest after that and didn’t need to. We had learned all we needed to know for that day in those first minutes.
First, we found these bass in the deepest portion of this relatively shallow lake, but the fish had positioned themselves high in the water column.
Second, they wanted a fast presentation. My partner had reversed the polarity on his electric motor so that he would have a wider range of speeds and better boat control while running the small V-hull rowboat we had for that day backwards. That left us with only two forward speeds – fast and slow.
Guess how the bass wanted it? Fast…real fast!
We tried jigs and plastic worms on the bottom without any success. I tried working a paddletail swimbait high in the water column, too. Nothing!
Our catch of 61 fish in that section of the lake came entirely from lipless crankbaits and a small Bandit crankbait Ron pulled out of his tackle tray late in the day. And, with the exception of a few fish caught with a stop-and-go retrieve, the rest of our fish came as we burned the bait back.
Our catch included a lot of three- and four-pound bass and five fish near or above the five-pound mark, including one that was closing in on six pounds.
A few words on lipless
I have used many brands, sizes and colors of lipless crankbaits with tremendous success over the years, and I will continue to add to my extensive arsenal. Every year I seem to run into another brand or another color or another bait with a unique rattle that stands out and, for at least a week or two, becomes my favorite lipless crankbait. Here are a few favorites:
Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap – The Original Rat-L-Trap in ½-ounce size continues to catch fish year after year, and many anglers refuse to fish anything else. I like the color selection and some of the new variations the company has introduced in recent years including its Zombie series and ¾-ounce sizes.
Jackall TN 70/TN 60 – Jackall’s lipless crankbait is another one I can count on to catch fish consistently. It rides with its nose down thanks to a tungsten-weighted lower lip. I carry a bluegill/perch type color, a crawfish color and a couple of shad-type colors with me. One always seems to dial them in.
XCalibur Xr Rattle Bait – I’ve had memorable days with the Xr 25, Xr 50, Xr 75 and Xr 100. In fact, the Xr 100 in Foxy Shad caught four bass over eight pounds in a two-day period during early March several seasons ago on two different Alabama waters. The largest was a whopper only three ounces shy of the 13-pound mark; the next a gorgeous fish weighing 10-5! I carry XCalibur’s One-Knocker (Xrk) models, too.
Rapala Clackin’ Rap – Several years ago, Rapala came out with its own low resonance lipless crankbait. What is unique about the Clackin’ Rap, however, is that its single “clacking” ball rattles in a metal chamber exposed on each flank of the bait. Lots of bass answer its call.
I will be carrying an even wider array of lipless crankbaits this fall, too including the Spro Aruku Shad and versions from Damiki, Lucky Craft and LiveTarget. I might even carry some of the small Cordell Spots that caught so many white bass in those days of yore!
This is a lure category where a color, rattle, size or any subtle nuance can make a significant difference to the fish on a given day.